The aim of this article is to indicate the features of contemporary urban agriculture present in the contiguously built-up areas of Havana. Using an exploratory and classification approach, the authors draw on fieldwork and a prior analysis of satellite and aerial imagery, first to characterize the spatial distribution of urban gardens and then to point to their main intrinsic features, including the methods and organization of production and the functions performed. The research conducted shows that urban agriculture is distributed across the city in an uneven fashion, with the main concentration in districts of lower-density urban construction, which reflects the availability of land resources intentionally left between buildings by modernist planners. The most common production technique applied is
- Urban agriculture
- organic farming
- sustainable agriculture
In an era of urban civilization, in which more than 50% of the global population is comprised of city dwellers (UNFPA 2007), an important question arises as to how cities will not only feed themselves but also provide their inhabitants with appropriate and healthy food, while simultaneously enhancing self-sufficiency, sustainability and resilience. Concerns about the food security of urban dwellers have led to a greater interest in food being grown locally within cities (Guitart, Pickering & Byrne 2012). The definition of urban agriculture might readily be simplified to the one adopted by H. De Bon, L. Parrot and P. Moustier (2010, p. 21): ‘the growing of plants and the raising of animals for food and other uses within and around cities and towns’. However, some authors elect to expand this basic definition, arguing for the broad conceptualization as an industry in which the production is accompanied by both the processing and the marketing of food (Górna 2018; Orsini et al. 2013; Smit & Nasr 1992; Smit, Nasr & Ratta 2001; Van Veenhuizen 2014). In discussing urban agriculture in the context of sustainable development, it is also worth mentioning its multifunctionality and its integration into the urban socio-economic and ecological system (Aubry et al. 2012; Mougeot 2000; Sroka 2014). After all, use is being made of urban resources (land, water and waste) as inputs, land is being competed for, and urban residents are being supplied with both food and employment (De Zeeuw, Van Veenhuizen & Dubbeling 2011).
Havana, the capital of Cuba and one of the largest Caribbean cities, is regarded as one of the outstanding examples of how urban agriculture may develop. Because of the abundance of urban gardens, as well as the significant role these play in the urban ecosystem, Havana can justifiably serve as the most representative research object anywhere, offering an opportunity for the examination of an alternative organic food provisioning system that has emerged within the borders of a city (Chaplowe 1998; Premat 2005). Many authors have taken up the subject of urban agriculture in Cuba over the past couple of decades, focusing on: its spread since the early 1990s and its contribution to food security and sovereignty of urban dwellers (Altieri et al. 1999; Buchmann 2009; Cruz, Medina 2003; Febles-González et al. 2011; Koont 2011; Leitgeb, Schneider & Vogl 2016; Murphy 1999; Novo, Murphy 2000; Wright 2012); production methods and forms of organization (Altieri et al. 1999; Chaplowe 1998; Herrera Sorzano 2009; Koont 2009; Murphy 1999); small-scale urban gardens and their social impact (Buchmann 2009; Premat 2005, 2009); and the concepts of metabolic rift and metabolic restoration (Clausen, Clark & Longo 2015). Some literature examples are based on empirical research, focusing on Havana (Chaplowe 1998; Leitgeb, Schneider & Vogl 2016; Premat 2005, 2009); particular parts of Havana such as the Consejo Popular Camilo Cienfuegos and the Parque Metropolitano de La Habana (Cruz, Medina 2003); San José de las Lajas (Nelson et al. 2009); or other cities such as Trinidad de Cuba (Buchmann 2009), Pinar del Río and Matanzas (Koont 2011). There are also review articles that include Cuba in their examples (Hallett et al. 2016; Hamilton et al. 2014).
In this article we draw on fieldwork conducted in Cuba’s capital in 2018. Based on a sample of 43 study sites we aim to point out the features of contemporary urban agriculture present in the contiguously built-up areas of Havana. Using classification and an exploratory approach, we first analyze the location and spatial distribution of urban agriculture sites – rarely discussed in the literature on the topic (the following authors point out some features of the location of urban gardens in Havana: Premat 2005; Viljoen, Howe 2005) – and their intrinsic features: methods of production, organization of production (including distribution), and functions performed. This article also includes an estimation of the total area of the gardens, their average size and the percentage of the area allocated for production in 2018. We focus on medium-size and large urban gardens and exclude the smallest home gardens, although they are the most numerous.
The paper is based on empirical research, which will add to the general knowledge of urban agriculture in Havana, as it draws on specific examples of gardens currently operating in the city. Furthermore, it includes two case studies differing in terms of the intrinsic features analyzed and presenting contrasting approaches to organic and sustainable production techniques and food management, as well as the different roles that they play in Havana’s food provisioning system. The two cases are also accompanied by accurate schemas showing the spatial organization of each site.
Urban agriculture in Cuba dates back to the fall of the Soviet Bloc and the subsequent cessation – in the early 1990s – of the financial and logistical support on which not only the agricultural sector but the entire Cuban economy was dependent (Altieri et al. 1999; Buchmann 2009; Chaplowe 1998). Due to severe food shortages – caused by the significant limitation of trade with its largest economic partner, the USSR, as well as a trade embargo imposed by the USA, Cuba’s closest and economically most powerful neighbour – Cubans were forced to apply a different food provisioning strategy that would make the cities more self-sufficient. An overriding goal was also to ensure food security for those particularly in need.
In 1990, the Cuban government officially proclaimed the Special Period in Time of Peace (
A critical moment in Cuban urban agricultural history then came with the establishment of the Urban Agriculture Department within the Ministry of Agriculture (MINAGRI) in 1994 (Altieri et al. 1999; Novo and Murphy 2000). The main objective was the provisioning of unused land for those wishing to cultivate it and produce food in the city. In this context, residents keen on starting an urban garden were able to request the relevant rights to use the land.
Urban agriculture in Cuba is currently organized at the national and municipal levels, within different cooperative, state and private structures, and various subprogrammes involving production, livestock and supporting services (Herrera 2009; Novo and Murphy 2000). It is not only highly institutionalized but also under strict control in terms of both the supply of inputs and organic farming practices (Nelson et al. 2009). The government support and reform led to an increase in the number of urban gardens located on previously abandoned, unused and neglected land in Havana and other Cuban cities, while strict control over farm practices has ensured and enhanced the implementation of organic production methods (Altieri et al. 1999; Nelson et al. 2009). The gardens are coordinated by the National Urban Agriculture Group (
There are several authors who discuss types of urban agriculture in Cuba (Altieri et al. 1999; Díaz & Harris 2005; Herrera Sorzano 2009; Koont 2009; Murphy 1999; Novo & Murphy 2000). They refer to different features of urban gardens, such as cultivation methods, organization of production, or management levels. The following types are discussed most frequently:
Because of the poor anthrosol quality and its contamination with chemicals and building materials such as shards of glass and pieces of concrete and plastic, many urban areas in Cuba are actually unsuitable for cultivation. For that reason, Cuba’s city dwellers have developed – and over time disseminated very widely – an organic method of cultivation called
Other types or forms of urban agriculture occurring in the literature are, for example, popular gardens, household gardens, hydroponics, suburban farms or parcels and patios (Altieri et al. 1999; Herrera Sorzano 2009; Murphy 1999).
The above categorization, while it includes most of the common forms of urban gardens in Cuba, is not in fact comprehensive, and might also be seen as somewhat unclear. After all, the types presented overlap and are complementary, while the terminology at times refers to production methods and other times to the ways in which production and distribution are organized. For example,
This research has been conducted using mainly qualitative methods, in particular an exploratory and classification approach. It has been divided into two main stages. The first was based on the analysis of high-resolution Google Earth Pro images, providing for the mapping of urban agriculture sites in the research area, while the second comprises fieldwork carried out to verify the prior spatial analysis and provide information on intrinsic features (methods of production, organization of production and functions performed) of each site visited. Both stages will be analyzed further.
As urban agriculture involves an abundance of different crops planted next to one another and employs multi-seasonal cropping, the structures of urban gardens are highly diversified. Furthermore, a particularly typical feature of Havana’s
Since the emphasis of this article is on the urban gardens present in the contiguously built-up areas of Havana, analysis is here limited to a research area that has been arbitrarily designated. Delimitation is based on the manual classification of Google Earth Pro 2017 satellite and aerial imagery, with the relevant part of Havana being of high-density urban construction over an area of 76.7 km2 (Fig. 1). Within the research area, a total of 55 agriculture sites were classified with reference to the satellite and aerial imagery. The margin of error was set at 5%. In the course of the fieldwork carried out in May 2018, 50 of the sites previously classified were actually visited (the remaining five were located in a closed military area or not visible from public land). Some 43 sites were classified as being allocated to urban agriculture (and under current cultivation), and it was those sites that were made subject to further detailed analysis. The remaining seven were either abandoned and not operating at present (five sites) or misclassified as being in agricultural production (two sites, i.e. 4% of the total sites visited, and so below the margin of error set at 5%).
In the course of the fieldwork, 21 semi-structured interviews were conducted. The method of semi-structured interviews was also successfully used by Leitgeb, Schneider and Vogl during their research, conducted in 2012 to 2013, concerning the impact of state reforms on the food sovereignty of Havana’s residents (2016). The group of respondents thus comprised employees working on a field, at a point of sale or in a market, and site bosses. The questions asked concerned the general functioning of the plot and the answers provided information that could not be obtained solely as a result of observation; for example, the number of employees, the full list of plants grown or the place of compost production. Due to the fact that the interviewees were able to introduce different topics, the range of information gathered was usually much wider, and went beyond issues selected previously, which was a significant contribution to the case studies presented. The interviews were not recorded, as per the respondents’ wishes. The answers were uploaded into electronic form. Information obtained during the interviews and the accompanying field observations enabled the intrinsic features of each of the gardens to be indicated.
The 43 urban agriculture sites studied were located in the following parts of Havana: Playa (13), Cerro (9), Plaza de la Revolución (8), Diez de Octubre (5), Centro Habana (4), San Miguel del Padrón (2), Habana Vieja (1) and Marianao (1). These gardens are not distributed equally across the research area (Fig. 1), but agriculture is concentrated in several areas. There are 13 sites located within a 1.5 km radius of the Plaza de la Revolución and seven sites within 1.5 km of Aerodromo Ciudad Libertad. Eight sites are situated along the coast in the Miramar district. Furthermore, several sites in the south and south-eastern parts of the city occupy areas near municipal green space. The environs of Plaza de la Revolución are considered a civic centre and one of the most representative parts of Havana and yet a considerable proportion of this land is allocated to urban agriculture.
In the most densely urbanized areas like the Vedado, Centro Suárez and Buenavista districts, as well as the area to the north of Centro Habana, no medium-size or large urban agriculture sites were identified, which is consistent with research carried out by Premat (2005), who states that only small-scale urban agriculture sites are present in the most central of Havana’s municipalities. The small number of medium-size and large gardens in densely urbanized districts results from the scarcity of available land. According to A. Viljoen & J. Howe (2005), as the density of inhabitation increases in Havana, intra-urban agriculture diminishes. In contrast, the areas with a high concentration of gardens (especially in the vicinity of the Plaza de la Revolución and Aerodromo Ciudad Libertad) are less densely built-up. Such a spatial distribution of urban agriculture might therefore reflect the urban character of Havana. On the one hand, the city has a compact historical core typical of centres planned during the colonial period. For military and economic reasons these were densely built-up. On the other hand, Havana has less dense, dispersed edges (A. Viljoen & J. Howe 2005) developing alongside main routes leading towards the city periphery. Within the research area, urban agriculture tends to be concentrated in close proximity to principal arteries, such as Avenida de la Independencia, Avenida 5ta, Avenida 41 and Calzada del Cerro, or on the edges of the areas near municipal green space, in industrial areas or in new residential neighbourhoods, where the availability of land resources is relatively high. A. Premat (2005, p. 161) states that, apart from the outskirts of Havana,
The different historical models of urban planning, both colonial and modernist, that formed Havana’s urban space have indirectly influenced the arrangement of today’s urban agriculture across the city. The uneven spatial distribution of the food production and provision sites has grave consequences for the food security of the local population. The number of such sites in areas with high population densities is insufficient, and unable to meet demand. For this reason, many residents of such areas, especially in Centro Habana and Habana Vieja, are forced to visit other neighbourhoods in order to buy basic food products (Murphy 1999).
The total area of all plots visited was 323,035 m2, while the total production area was 152,090 m2. The uncultivated land was usually reserved for additional facilities like seed nurseries, points of sale, markets, tool storage or composting, or else it was simply left unused. The areas of the different sites ranged between 290 m2 and 95,425 m2, while the average area was 7,512.44 m2. The largest production area was 73,448 m2, while the smallest covered just 96.8 m2. The average production area was 3,621.21 m2. The area allocated for production accounted for an average of 41.8% of the total garden area, the highest share being 77.7% and the lowest 5.9%.
The most common production technique identified during the fieldwork was
Another form observed in eight plots was the cultivation of plants directly in the ground (in ‘intensive gardens’, according to the classification discussed above). However, this form was much less frequent, possibly on account of the poor quality of the topsoil in Havana. Only four orchards were observed, though these did not occur individually but were rather elements of sites of other types. Among the plots visited, there was also a Seed Production and Marketing Company (
The main plants grown on the sites examined were vegetables (lettuce, onions, spinach, tomatoes), fruit trees (mangoes, papayas) and herbs (basil, oregano, spearmint). The most crucial – and typical – observation of urban agriculture (Smit, Nasr & Ratta 2001) that all the sites visited featured multiple cropping. Such a practice allowed for the regular provision of varied produce, and also served as a pest control method. Many gardens also employed semi-protected cultivation, which refers to beds being surmounted by shade cloths that were permeable to rain but protected against excess sunlight (Koont 2009).
Twelve sites involved animal husbandry to complement the cultivation of plants. The most common livestock were poultry (observed at 10 sites). Hens roamed free outdoors or were kept in small, vertically arranged cages to limit the space they occupied. Other animals found were goats, rabbits and pigs. The latter are rarely raised in the city centre, as legal regulations ensure that piggeries are located on the fringes of the city at a safe distance from residential areas to reduce the risk of water supplies being contaminated (Novo & Murphy 2000).
As the use of chemical fertilizers is prohibited within the city limits (Altieri et al. 1999; Novo & Murphy 2000), urban gardeners used animal and organic household waste, as well as plant residues, to enhance soil fertility. Compost, as an important sustainable agricultural element, was found at 23 sites (53.5% of all sites). While a majority of
Eight gardens had their own seed nurseries. The presence of such a facility allowed for the self-supply of seeds and seedlings, with this only adding to the self-sufficiency of a site, and decreasing dependency on seed market prices. Where irrigation was concerned, 11 sites used simple drip watering systems, while the remainder relied on manual watering. Production was not mechanized on any of the sites; they functioned instead using human labour. The tools employed were rather simple and easily maintained. The use of locally produced inputs (like organic matter or seeds) and inexpensive equipment (often made of reused materials) led to a reduction in production costs, and a reduction in the gardeners’ reliance on changeable economic conditions that ultimately made the gardens more resilient and sustainable.
Another feature worth considering is the system of organization and the destinations to which produce from each site was sent. Field observation proved that in the case of 19 of the gardens visited (43.2%) the produce was intended for sale to the local population (information confirmed by 12 respondents), as well as to restaurants, hotels or diplomatic missions (information confirmed by three respondents). The products could be purchased at small points of sale (
The gardens examined were also linked to the local labour market, as they frequently offered employment opportunities for urban dwellers. The number of employees ranged from one to 16 people and the average number was 4.32. These people worked either on a plot or at a point of sale. However, only 15 out of 21 respondents were authorized or eager to provide information regarding the number of employees.
Many of the gardens analyzed not only employed different production systems but also achieved multifunctionality. They incorporated commodities into the local food market (at the same time contributing to the food security of the inhabitants), offered employment, used urban wasteland, and performed different social functions. Four respondents confirmed that the produce from the gardens in which they worked was directed to nearby schools and the students were also encouraged to participate in the operation of the site in order to learn the principles of organic production. One garden (UCPEJV Organopónico Dirección Producción VRES) was part of a rehabilitation project for what the respondent (project coordinator) referred to as ‘troubled youth’ (
The following case studies exemplify distinct approaches to food production, both in terms of methods applied and organization of production. They perform diverse functions and connect to differing extents with Havana’s food provisioning system. The accompanying schemas accurately present the spatial arrangement of all the facilities within the gardens.
Interestingly, despite the site’s location next to a school, the former did not support the latter, and all produce it did supply was intended for sale. The point of sale was situated at the front of the lot and was publicly accessible. According to the respondent, the prices were much lower than those in
The site was divided into two separate plots by an internal road. One was a mango orchard of 13,675 m2 and the other a garden comprising different production systems that covered 10,190 m2 (with an
The garden differed significantly from the above-mentioned
Conclusions from this work are of both a cognitive and a methodological nature. The study, based on field observations and 21 semi-structured interviews conducted in 2018, provides accurate information on a sample of 43 urban gardens in the contiguously built-up areas of Havana. The average garden area was 7,512.44 m2. The most commonly grown plants were vegetables, such as lettuce, onions and spinach. The results of the research carried out attest to
Despite their strong institutionalized character, the urban gardens visited emerge as serving a commercial function also, as they contribute directly to the local food market. Produce from 43.2% of the surveyed sites was intended for sale. The two detailed case studies presented differed in terms of spatial organization, production methods used, functions performed, and above all the level of integration with the city’s food provisioning system. All the produce that
The spatial distribution of urban gardens present in the contiguously built-up areas of Havana reflects its urban history. Both colonial and modernist planning are visible in the contemporary urban space of Cuba’s capital, and they have also exerted an indirect influence on where today’s medium-size and large urban gardens are located. Urban agriculture is distributed across the city in an uneven fashion, the main concentration being in districts of lower-density urban construction, such as the environs of the Plaza de la Revolución. This reflects the availability of land resources intentionally left between buildings by modernist planners.
The research also shows the efectiveness of manual classification, achieved using Google Earth Pro satellite and aerial imagery, which indeed proved to be a suitable method by which to analyze the highly heterogeneous vegetation cover typical of urban gardens.
Hamilton et al. (2016) state in their review article that the extent of urban agriculture needs to be quantified more precisely, which could be achieved through far-reaching surveys and inventories. We also argue that comprehensive and systematic empirical research of both a quantitative and qualitative nature concerning spatial distribution, management and intrinsic features of gardens is essential to better understand the patterns of how urban agriculture in different cities of the world functions.